Legislators move forward with sentencing bill
BOSTON — House and Senate conferees last week came closer to resolving differences between respective bills cracking down on violent offenders.
State Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, a member of the conference committee, said the House conferees would be willing to discuss the reduced mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders.
“We’ve been able to come a long way in accepting the fact that we will even debate that issue in this conference committee,” Hill said. “But I do think that if you are going to put away the most heinous criminals, you also have to look at what we’re doing with nonviolent offenders as well.”
Each branch recently passed the three-strikes proposal, which would eliminate parole for three-time violent offenders. The Senate bill also included provisions for early parole or reduced mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders.
While Hill said House negotiators were willing to discuss reduced mandatory minimum sentences, he said it will be difficult to pass in the House.
“Because we haven’t had that debate in the House, it’s going to be a hard sell to go back to our Republican Party and to our Democratic colleagues,” Hill said. “They haven’t had the opportunity to debate that issue yet, but we are willing to go back to both our caucuses and debate those issues.”
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, who is also on the conference committee, said he was pleased with the meeting last Friday, calling it a turning point in the negotiations.
“We stopped talking past each other today and actually agreed to a framework by which we can handle all the issues,” Tarr said. “If we didn’t do that, we would have been at risk of allowing discussions of process to overtake the substance of the bill.”
Tarr said negotiations for reduced mandatory minimum sentences will take work, but he hopes both sides can reach a consensus soon.
The Senate also passed 40 additional measures in its sentencing bill, including wiretapping laws to include new electronic forms of communication. Tarr doesn’t want to take these items off the table.
“They are not on the fast track like the other two categories, but I think it’s important we not exclude things at this point,” Tarr said. “My hope would be to include as much as the Senate bill as possible because it was a balanced approach that members spent a lot of time working on.”
However, Hill wants to keep the focus on habitual offenders and the minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders.
“I think to make it an omnibus crime bill at this point would be the wrong thing to do,” Hill said. “There are so many issues that the Republican caucus are concerned about in the Senate’s bill that I’m not sure we would get the votes to pass a bill.”
Hill wants to put a bill out with the two main issues and then take up those further Senate issues at a later date. He also emphasized the importance of working quickly to put together this bill.
“We end July 31 for full formal sessions, so we have a very short window to get this bill done,” he said. “We need to get this done as soon as we possibly can, keep it to those two issues, and put something out that we can be very proud of.”
The six-member conference committee also includes Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen; Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton; Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, D-Chelsea; and Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick.
Other local legislators are awaiting the conference committee report before committing their vote. Rep. Theodore Speliotis, D-Danvers, said that his vote on the reduced mandatory minimum sentencing would depend on how much of a compromise is made between the two sides.
“You sometimes have the front page of the newspaper saying there was a violent crime, but it is really the result of drugs and alcohol,” he said. “The public needs to be protected, so I’ll decide after seeing what the negotiations bring.”